On Dec. 31, 2016, sheriff’s deputies in Monroe County, Georgia, pulled over David Maynard Morris Jr. His girlfriend at the time, Dasha Fincher, sat next to him in the passenger seat. The deputies told the pair that they initiated the stop because the vehicle’s window tint was too dark. They then said the tint was not in violation of the law but asked to search the car regardless.
Morris consented to the search. Among the trash on the passenger-side floorboard, deputies found what they described as a “blue crystal like substance” inside an open plastic bag. The deputies removed the substance from the bag, sniffed it, and analyzed it with a narcotics field test called Nark II. Fincher insisted that the substance was simply cotton candy—but moments later the test produced a positive result for methamphetamine. She was charged with methamphetamine trafficking as well as possession with intent to distribute the drug. “I was shocked,” Fincher told The Appeal. “I really thought I’d get down to the jail and they’d just have to turn around and let me go.”
On Jan. 11, 2017, Fincher appeared for her first bond hearing where the judge ordered a $1 million cash bond based on the arresting officer’s testimony even though the deputy who had conducted the test, Cody Maples, acknowledged in court that he had no training in drug recognition. Fincher was unable to pay the seven-figure bond and remained incarcerated pending a more sophisticated test of the substance by the Georgia Bureau of Investigation (GBI). On March 15, 2017, a Monroe County grand jury returned an indictment against Fincher for trafficking methamphetamine and possession of methamphetamine. But just days later, on March 22, she was cleared in the case: The GBI issued a report finding that there were no controlled substances in the blue material. It was, as Fincher maintained all along, cotton candy.
But the conclusion in Fincher’s case did not erase the injustice she suffered: She sat in the Monroe County jail for three months and endured profound trauma while incarcerated. She also joined a long list of people who have been wrongfully incarcerated because of the Nark II tests which have returned false positives for everyday substances such as vitamins, breath mints, and headache powder. Manufactured by forensic kit maker Sirchie, the roadside drug tests were responsible for at least 145 false positives in Georgia in 2017, an investigation by Atlanta’s Fox affiliate found. Nark II produced the highest number of false positives—64—in methamphetamine tests, according to the Fox investigation. “That to me tells me there’s something wrong with this product,” Fincher’s attorney, James Freeman, told The Appeal.
On Nov. 15, Freeman filed a civil rights lawsuit on Fincher’s behalf in a Georgia federal court against the deputies, Monroe County, and Sirchie, claiming that she was wrongfully arrested and jailed, and maliciously prosecuted. The Monroe County Sheriff’s Office is also facing a federal civil rights lawsuit from Micka Martin, a Georgia woman who says a sergeant struck, punched, and kicked her while she was handcuffed in a booking area at the jail in 2016. The sheriff’s office referred questions from The Appeal about the training that officers receive to the county attorney, who did not immediately respond. Neither Deputy Maples or Sirchie responded to a request for comment.
Fincher also claims in her lawsuit to have suffered emotional distress from her case. The day before her January 2017 bond hearing, Fincher’s daughter-in-law gave birth to twin boys. Later, Fincher’s son visited her at the Monroe County jail to introduce her to her grandsons. During the visit, officers arrested him for a failure to appear bench warrant; a frustrated Fincher then broke her hand on a concrete wall. The next day, it was determined that no warrant existed for her son, and he was freed. A doctor, meanwhile, told Fincher that her injured hand could only be fitted with a brace because of severe swelling. She was advised to return in a week for a full cast, but the jail never transported her for the follow-up visit, according to her lawsuit.
In another incident, Fincher alleges that she was taken to the emergency room for a cyst on her ovaries but was not permitted by jail officials to follow up with a gynecologist as recommended. According to her lawsuit, a female jailer told her to “get over it” because she’d had an ovarian cyst before. Fincher’s daughter also suffered a miscarriage, and she was unable to support her because she was behind bars.
Heather Harris, an expert in forensic analytical chemistry who has consulted with public defenders in Georgia on Nark II tests, told The Appeal that in Fincher’s case the blue food dye was most likely responsible for the false positive result. The reagent in the Nark II test is designed to color react with secondary amines in methamphetamine; a dark blue color indicates a positive result. Harris adds that the tests include a warning that their results must be confirmed by an independent laboratory but that law enforcement has repeatedly relied on the tests to jail people. “It’s not a confirmatory test,” Harris said, “so the problem is the human beings who are misusing the results of the test.”
The March 22, 2017, GBI report that exonerated Fincher didn’t result in her immediate release: She wasn’t freed until April 4, and prosecutors from the Towaliga Judicial Circuit did not nolle prosse (decline to prosecute) the case until April 18. Freeman, her attorney, said he’s not sure why there was such a long period between the lab results and her release but expects an answer to emerge during discovery in the lawsuit. “The very idea that when they pull out this big loose bag, that this is somehow this mass quantity of methamphetamine these great drug dealers are carrying around is just ludicrous,” he said. “Common sense went out the window on this arrest.”
Fincher said she hopes that her lawsuit will result in stricter policies for officers who use roadside drug tests. But most of all, she wants Monroe County to apologize to her. “They just didn’t care,” she said.